Sacraments, Not Social Events

A common pastoral problem today is that many people have reduced the liturgy and the sacraments to ceremonies. To be sure, they have ceremonial aspects, but they are not mere ceremonies. Sacraments change reality; they affect us and effect a change in us that is necessary, real, and glorious. Too often the effects of the sacraments are forgotten in favor of the externals. The sacraments most affected by this mentality are Baptism, Holy Matrimony, and the Mass itself.

As an illustration, consider a man who is about to be ordained a priest. He receives a letter from the bishop calling him to this order; it indicates the date of the ordination Mass approximately two months in the future. What if the man said to himself, “It’s just a ceremony,” and began presenting himself as a priest, even going so far as to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in local parishes? This of course would be an egregious violation and sacrilege because he is not in fact an ordained priest. Something far more than a ceremony takes place on the day of his ordination. A sacrament takes place that actually changes him and configures him to Christ. He is changed such that he is now able to act in the person of Christ and confect the sacraments.

It is similar with Holy Matrimony. In it, God effects a miraculous change in the bride and groom: the two become one. Genesis says that in marriage a man clings to his wife and the two of them become one. Jesus says, “They are no longer two, but one. And what God has joined together, let no one divide.” Thus, a new reality comes to be for both of them. This is also what makes their sexual union true and holy. Prior to the wedding they were two, not one, and thus sexual intercourse would be a sinful lie. After the wedding, the two are one and their sexual union is an expression of the truth, a holy sign of what they really are. The wedding is no mere ceremony, it is a sacrament that changes the couple.

The Sacrament of Baptism was once thought so essential and urgent that mothers seldom attended the baptism of their children. Within a day or two after birth the godparents (often accompanied by the father) whisked the child off to church for the baptism while the mother was still recovering.

This is because something essential and necessary is provided by baptism: the child, fraught with Original Sin, needs the healing power of Jesus to wash away that sin and make him a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and transfer him from kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. While this urgency was primarily driven by high levels of infant mortality, there was still the sense that the Sacrament of Baptism did something so essential that it could not be delayed, even by the absence of the mother, who was usually welcomed back after her convalescence, forty days later, through a liturgical rite known as the “Churching of Women.”

Today baptisms are too often delayed until a large cast of characters can be assembled. It seems that everyone just has to be there! I have seen families delay baptisms for years because certain extended family members “can’t make it.” Everyone seems to matter more than the child. How can the family gathering go well if Aunt Ethel can’t be there? The party seems more the point than the baptism.

Holy Baptism is a sacrament not a ceremony or an excuse for a party, a family gathering, or photographs. St. Paul says that prior to baptism we are dead in our sins (see Ephesians 2:1). That seems pretty serious! St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). That seems pretty glorious! Something essential is needed and it happens in Holy Baptism. The party, the pictures, and the other ceremonials are secondary. Baptism is a glorious sacrament that should be celebrated without delay. Canon law states that parents should provide for Holy Baptism within the first weeks after birth. St. Cyprian expressed surprise when someone wrote to him wondering if baptism should be delayed to the 8th day after birth since it replaces circumcision. He said,

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man (Epistle 58.2, to Fidus).

Too many people today don’t just wait eight days, they wait eight months. I often ask them why. They usually respond by saying that so-and-so can’t make it until June. “Then send pictures,” I counter. They look at me, dejected. This kind of attitude attempts to reduce Holy Baptism to a ceremony and a social event.

Allow these few examples to illustrate that the sacraments are not merely ceremonies. They are not merely opportunities for a party, family gathering, or group photograph; they are transformative encounters with Christ. When we receive a sacrament, something happens to us; we are changed. Permit this small reminder of the reality of the Sacraments. Some might say that the point made here is obvious, but in my experience, it is unfortunately not so obvious to many people.

Wood and Water Work Wonders! A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

On the first Sunday of Lent the readings have a baptismal theme. This makes sense, for it is common that on this day the catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election, who officially recognizes them as the elect of God in these final weeks before their baptism.

In today’s readings there are actually many themes; they seem to form the spokes of a wagon wheel, with baptism being the central hub from which they emanate. Arching over it all is the image of the rainbow in the sky, the great sign of God’s love and mercy upon us all. Even during Lent, as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined, and at times unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky.

Let’s look at the baptismal theme of these readings from two perspectives:

The PORTRAIT of Baptism – Both the first and second readings today make mention of Noah and the ark in which he and his family were delivered from the flood. The second reading says, God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now (1 Peter 3:19-20).

While we quickly associate water with baptism, the image is really a double one: wood and water. If it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed them. So, too for us: the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the cross.

Indeed, by God’s plan we might be so bold as to say, “Wood and water work wonders!” There are numerous places in the Scriptures where wood and water—not just water alone—manifest God’s saving love. Here are five of them:

  1. Cleansing Flood – We begin with today’s image, one of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world: the great flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin had so multiplied that God concluded He had to literally wash it clean. And you thought it was bad in the 21st century! God went to a man named Noah, telling him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah should get ready. Build an ark of gopher wood, Noah! This was no small project. The ark was to be the length of one-and-one-half football fields (150 yards), 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. Then Noah was to gather the animals: 2 pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals. You have to really trust God to put in all that work! Finally, God troubled the waters; the flood waters put an end to wickedness and made a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing, but first Noah had to wade in. Through water and the wood of the ark, God worked wonders (cf Gen 6-9).
  2. Trouble at the Red Sea – Many centuries later, Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt after 400 years of slavery. Then fickle Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear, but God would win through for them. How? By troubling the waters. God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two … So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided (Ex 14:16, 21). You and I know the end of the story but the people on that day did not. With water like two walls on either side them, they had to go forth; they had to wade in the waters. They had to trust God that the walls of water would hold. God brought them through and they were delivered out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? With God, wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and the troubled waters brought forth freedom.
  3. Trouble in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23). Once again, with God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
  4. More Trouble in the Desert – As they journeyed further, there was more thirst. God said to Moses, Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, … Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink (Ex 17:5-6). From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert.
  5. At the River Jordan– After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were finally ready to enter the promised land, but the Jordan was in flood stage, impossible to cross. Once again God had a plan; He was going to trouble those waters. God instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders and wade into the water. Now the ark was a box made of acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron, and a ciborium of the manna. They knew that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, just as it is in our tabernacles today. The text says, And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15) So again, with God, wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted, bringing the blessing of the promised land.

These Old Testament prefigurements bring us to the wood of the true cross. On that wooden cross the waters of our baptism come forth from the side of Christ. With Jesus our Lord and God, wood and water work the wonder of eternal salvation. We’re not being freed from an army, or from thirst, or from a flood; we’re being freed from sin and offered eternal salvation. The waters of our baptism are given the power to save by our Lord Jesus through what He did on the wood of the cross. You might as well say it, “With God, wood and water work wonders!”

The POWER of Baptism – Here we encounter more of the spokes of the wagon wheel radiating out from the hub, which is baptism. These spokes come largely from the second reading (1 Peter 3:17-22). The spokes speak of the power and the gifts that radiate from baptism. Let’s look at them.

Salvation – The text says, baptism … saves you now. The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei); it means to be delivered from present danger. Yes, we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan, who seeks to devour us.

If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped (Psalm 124).

St. Paul says this of Jesus: He rescued us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:4).

An old gospel hymn has these lyrics: “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”

Yes, through baptism and the faith it confers on us, we have been saved by the outstretched arm of our God. If we hold to God’s unchanging hand, Heaven will be ours.

Sonship – The text says, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Yes, Jesus has opened the way to the Father. He has reconciled us to God the Father by His precious blood.

In baptism we become the children of God. Isaiah says, For we like sheep had gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6).

We were angry and fearful of God, unable to endure His presence and His love, but Jesus the Good Shepherd has gathered us and restored us to grace.

One of the great gifts baptism gives us is the grace to experience a tender affection for God the Father and experience Him as Abba (cf Gal 4:6, Rom 8). As we grow in the grace of our baptism, so does our tender love and affection for the Father.

Through baptism and the indwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus causes us to experience increasing trust in the Father and to obey Him out of deep love rather than servile fear.

Serenity – The text says baptism….is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. While baptism touches the body, its current goal is the soul, the inner man or woman. In effect, this text speaks to us of the new mind and heart that Jesus confers on us through baptism.

In today’s Gospel Jesus refers to this new mind when he says “Repent!” The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.”

Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart, a whole new way of thinking—new priorities, new visions, new understandings, and new goals.

So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not refer to the brain but to that deepest inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with our self and our God. Through baptism the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day.

As our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience, confident and loving before God.

Spirit – The text says of Jesus, Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. As God, Jesus did not need or acquire the Holy Spirit; He was always one with the Holy Spirit. As man, though, He does acquire the Holy Spirit for us.

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the very life of God, the love of God, the joy of God, the holiness of God! To receive the Holy Spirit is to come to a totally new and transformed life.

When Jesus rose it was not merely that His corpse was resuscitated. It was truly His body that rose, but He took up a wholly transformed human life and offers this to us.

In baptism we die with Him and rise to this new life. If we are faithful to our baptismal commitments, we become ever more fully alive; sins are put to death and innumerable graces come forth. Yes, new life, Life in the Spirit, comes to those who are baptized and remain faithful to their baptismal life.

Long before the rainbow was co-opted by groups within our culture for an unbiblical agenda, it was a beautiful image of God’s covenantal love for us.

Do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water, form the rainbow in the sky. It is the sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.

This song says, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.”

On Trust and Foolishness as Seen in the Exodus

In daily Masses this week we are reading largely from the Book of Exodus, specifically the familiar story of the parting of the Red Sea by God, working through Moses. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s Feast of the St. James, good though it is, interrupts the story and we miss the critical passage in which the water is parted and the people of Israel escape through the sea, dry-shod.

Let’s review the passage:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left (Exodus 14:21-22).

When a story is so familiar to us it is easy to overlook the details. Note that the sea is standing up like a wall on both sides. Though the height is not mentioned, let’s just imagine that the walls of water are thirty feet high.

Imagine the courage of the people entering into the midst of sea while the water is being miraculously held back! If you saw walls of water like that, would you have ventured out into the middle? While it may have “helped” that they had an army pursing them from behind, do not minimize the fear they must have felt and the courage and trust it took for them to go forward in faith.

St. Paul would later say that the passage through the Red Sea is an image of baptism: They were all baptized into Moses (1 Cor 10:2). Note how faith and baptism are joined. Though the Sacrament of Baptism confers the theological virtue of faith, there is (at least in adult baptism) a kind of prevenient faith wherein one is prompted to trust God and what He has revealed. In receiving people into the faith, I have been amazed by the courage shown by many of them. There have been those who faced the dismay of and even persecution by their family members. Others overcame personal obstacles, doubts, and uncertainties. They stepped forth in faith and went through the waters.

Even after baptism, all of us are asked to continue living its implications. The increasing scorn and derision of our faith and the teachings of our Lord by the world may seem like walls of water that we must, in trust, ignore. We must continue in the renewal of our baptismal promises and journey through to the other side. We must also journey, trusting the Lord’s promise to deliver us from the pursuing army of the prince of this world.

Yes, living our baptism requires courage.

You might object to my calling the people of Israel courageous, saying that the Egyptian army also pushed forward into the middle of the parted walls of water. Yes, but their doing so was not the result of courage. Rather, it was the excess of courage we call rashness, folly, or foolhardiness. Why? Because they did not have the promises of God. It is virtuous to step out in faith, trusting the promises of God, but prideful to go forth trusting in one’s own strength. The prideful cannot stand before God, only the humble can.

The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and cast a glance and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:23-25).

Faith delivers. Pride brings only destruction. A simple glance from the Lord destroys pride and all its foolish dreams.

Marriage Mania: Average Couple spends more than $26,000 on Weddings

Back in the 1980s when I was ordained, there was a priest in the area who was famous (infamous) for the fact that he requested couples who were going to spend more than $5,000 on a wedding (more in those days than now) to pay a tithe, (one tenth) of what they spent on the wedding, to the poor. While he could not require this of couples, he made of it more than a casual suggestion, reminding them that, as they spent thousands on flowers that wilt and dresses worn only once, there were some in this world who had little to wear or eat. The priest has long since passed away now, but was famous for saying very little at diocesan meetings, except, “Gentlemen, what about the poor?”

The memory of this priest crossed my mind as a Facebook Friend passed on tho me an article entitled: Average Couple spends 26K on Wedding. The article goes on to describe the devastating debt that many families incur, (especially when paired with college debt, etc.),  on account of the increasingly unreasonable expectations regarding weddings.

In indicating that $26,000 is the average, that means that half spend more, some a lot more. I actually have couples who are shacking up, (err… “cohabiting”) tell me that they can’t “afford” to get married. Some are surprised when I tell them they don’t have to spend a dime to get married in the Church. They can come to the Chapel with two witnesses and I’ll even buy them lunch. The usual push-back I get is that my suggestion offends against dreams (usually of the woman who wants a picture perfect “Church Wedding”). “So, for the sake of a party you will go offending God?” I ask. “Why not prepare for marriage now, get married in the Chapel, and have a 10th Anniversary bash?” suggest I. “We’ll get back to you on that Father.” Do I need to tell you my phone is not exactly ringing off the hook?

Disclaimer – As regards the cost of weddings, I realize that families do feel certain obligations to others. Further, there are some families that are prominent in the community, and either sense, or do in fact have, wider obligations. I do not, in this article mean to, or wish to, opine on particular weddings and I presume good faith on decisions that families make. However, at the cultural level we have questions to ask ourselves, in terms of the financial and personal costs we place on families. I have little doubt that weddings have always been relatively expensive, but 26K (average) is off the hook, and all of us do well to walk this whole thing back a bit, and ponder what fuels this. There are valid costs, but what part does vanity and dreaminess play on the part of the couple? And what part do unrealistic expectations and commercial hype play from the wider community side?

Permit me to give some excerpts from the article with my own commentary in red. The full article is written by Cathy Grossman of USA Today and is HERE

Call it Wedding Bill Blues. Even with a slight drop in “I Do” spending during recent tough economic years, many couples are beguiled beyond their budgets…..The average couple has a $26,989 wedding, according to Brides magazine. Even though that’s down from a peak of $28,082 in pre-recession 2008… remember this average number means that half of coupes spend more, some a lot more.

Couples are victimized by their own fantasies, cajoled by media visions of celebrity nuptials, and pressured by friends, family, even strangers posting idyllic photos on [wedding sites]…..Resisting is hard, say brides, citing wedding planners who overwhelm them with choices for décor and doo-dads that seem irresistible. Couples can also be lured off their financial feet by bank commercials that encourage borrowing for wedding costs. So the blame is collective, we ought not simply blame dreamy brides, or proud grooms, its all of us.

“It’s emotional. Practicality goes out the window,” says David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Jones [though savvy about the problem of debt] sees many ways debt entraps people. As a grandfather, Jones…found himself a shocked participant in runaway wedding spending for his granddaughter’s wedding…— a $6,000 gown, when $3,000 was planned..

Gosh, I just can’t imagine spending 6K for a dress worn only once.

I remember that my mother, to save money, went in on a dress that three of her friends shared (see photo above). Of course in those days women married rather predictably right out of college and such “team arrangements” were easier to make.

Today, does a dress have to be purchased? Can it not be rented? I DO know of some brides who find very lovely “used” gowns for a very reasonable price.

We also discussed last month, that, for those who purchase a dress, there is a very lovely custom of making baptismal gowns from it, or other holy garments.

At any rate, I’m sorry, 6K for a dress worn only once is crazy. Why not just say no to that sort of stuff? I know, I Know, I’m “a man” and wouldn’t understand.

While Jones and his wife contributed cash, their son, father of the bride, “had to work overtime for months after the March wedding to pay off the credit card bills,” Jones says…..Most people don’t have an emergency account or savings. The typical family has $50,000 for retirement.They don’t have six to nine months of savings set aside and even if they did, it wouldn’t be $26,000. Even if young couples are increasingly sharing the costs, they’re facing student loans and credit card debt even before the first wedding invitation flies out.

The crushing debt that couples carry into marriage, and then the debt they add buying homes much bigger than most of then need, is a huge factor in marital stress and divorce. I have had to counsel many a couple to reset their expectations of the “American Dream” and live much more simply.

My parents lived in an apartment for a good number of years before being able to afford a house. Too many couples forget that there is more to home expenses than a mortgage payment. There is insurance, repairs, taxes, utilities, etc.

So honestly, couples need to think carefully before spending a lot on a wedding. Most of them already bring debt into the marriage…and debt has a way of piling up so that it becomes crushing.

Careful! Debt is real. Too many think of debt is theoretical terms. But it’s pretty awful and real when cut-off notices come for utilities, and the “repo man” is ringing on the bell, and the credit card company is inquiring when the next payment will come.

Crystals everywhere. Flowers everywhere. Lots of drapery and fancy lighting, ice sculptures and all that jazz,”….The couple thought they would spend “about $30,000, but suddenly… looked up, and we had 200 people coming, and the costs were heading for $10,000 to $15,000 over budget…..We cut the up-lighting. We cut the draping. We cut the special wooden dance floor, and no one missed it.”

Hello….There are a lot of other things that won’t be missed too. In then, can we agree, it is the people, and togetherness that makes a wedding reception, not the “stuff.”

The article then details a number of cost savings to consider and couples getting married may find this part of the article helpful. The article then concludes:

Weddings bells sound like a cash register —Ka-ching! The average 2012 wedding (not including a honeymoon) will cost $26,989, up from $26,501 in 2011. A May 2012 survey of 1,272 Brides magazine and website readers found:

•91% of couples set a budget, but 32% overall, and 40% of those who plan a destination wedding, cross that line.

•72% of couples used savings to pay for their weddings. I presume they deplete it almost entirely? Not a good plan when starting a family.

•30% use credit cards, and most expect to pay off credit cards within six months of their wedding. Think again

•54% of couples said paying for a wedding would not hamper their plans for “buying a house or a car, starting a family, etc.” Think again

•62% of couples say they’re contributing or paying entirely for the reception costs, including 36% of couples who expect to pick up the entire tab themselves. Notice, that’s a big change from 25 years ago when the family of the bride footed most or all the bill. I wonder if parents still paid most of the bill if things would be this off the hook?

•Couples are almost as likely to have a sit-down plated meal at their reception (42%) as a buffet style meal (41%).

Perhaps we can end were we started. I wonder if a cash tithe were going to the poor, if couples and families might not also think a little more soberly. Maybe the older priest I remember had a spiritual insight. When everything isn’t about me, and when I think of others first, perhaps the Lord grants us a greater degree of sobriety.

It isn’t just about weddings, its about a lot of purchases. What if I were going to buy a camera, the latest SLR, and what if it costs $1100 dollars. When It’s just about me, its too easy to say, “Sure! Charge it!” But what if I am also going to have to write a check to overseas relief, of $110? Now I might think twice, or I might not buy the deluxe, or maybe I will buy it, but at least its not just about me.

Maybe, when we render our debt to the poor, first, our own debts are less. Something to think about in the extravaganza and boondoggle known as “the wedding.”

What if God is unhappy with our praise? A call to the worthy reception of Communion

With some fear and trepidation I broach again the topic of the worthy reception of Holy Communion.

Clearly the topic has been much in the news in the recent past and has intersected with politics, for the usual demands are that politicians be denied communion for their support of abortion, euthanasia and matters related to so-called Gay “marriage.”

Bishops for their part do not appreciate being baited and/or drawn into making disciplinary actions that many will see as political (even if they are not) and one-sided (generally Democrats would receive the discipline).

And, thus, while prudentially concluding that the such disciplines would generally backfire, the Bishops are then excoriated by many theoretically loyal Catholics for malfeasance and/or dereliction of duty. It is a major mess and field day for the devil who brings in a harvest of wrath.

I too have suffered great wrath from many readers here how are furious that I do not “take the bait” and slam the bishops. I of course will do no such thing, for they are shepherds and Fathers to me and, if I were to have any burden under their leadership, I would speak to them privately and as to a father, respectfully, never drawing the faithful into attitudes of dissension and disrespect, or to legalistic notions that they only need to reverence the bishops in a few restricted matters.

And yet, in today’s reading (Wednesday of Week 13) came the clarion warning to us all from the Prophet Amos that we should be very careful approaching the divine Liturgy with hearts full of sin and injustice and hands stained with blood and oppression. As always, Amos words’ leave no room for face-saving niceties:

I hate, I spurn your feasts, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

And old African American song says, What if God is unhappy with our praise? What if God is unhappy with the way we live? We must change the way we walk, we must change the way we talk. We must live a life that’s pleasing to our king….

Cardinal Ratzinger in his memo Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion reminds us all:

Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g. excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (# 1).

Commenting as he was on the questions of abortion and euthanasia the Cardinal said further:

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. (# 5)

Note that the Cardinal, Now Pope Benedict, speaks of the role of pastors. For while it is frequently bishops who get the venom of the faithful, it is the pastors of wayward Catholics that have the first obligation to both warn and instruct the faithful, politician or otherwise, when serious sin becomes evident in the life of any.

Pastors have the duty first to instruct in a general sort of way that the faithful ought not approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion if they are aware of serious (mortal) sin, or are in grave disunity with the teachings of the Church. It is usually helpful to instruct them based on the scriptural admonition of St. Paul:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Cor 11:27-32)

The context of St. Paul’s admonition makes it clear that he has in mind serious sins that include more than merely sexual matters, but also matters that extend to a grave lack of charity toward others, something which too few judge as very serious today.

And thus the Pastor ought to instruct in a general kind of way, taking care not to excite grave scrupulosity, but being clear of the need for regular confession, especially in the case of habitual serious sin.

More specifically the pastor may sometimes need to approach certain individuals and, after ascertaining the facts, warn serious sinners in a private and clear way to repent and to stay away from Communion until such time as they are ready to do so wholeheartedly. Cardinal Ratzinger cited this as a clear duty of pastors.

For my own part, and speaking in a very general sort of way, I have indeed undertaken this duty in more than a few cases to warn certain individuals in serious sin to repent. This was not, in every case, sinners who were only in sinful sexual liaisons, and almost never did it include politicians. It also included certain people who were exhibiting a very grave lack of charity or causing serious harm in their family or the parish.

It was my duty in all such cases not only to warn them that they should stay back from Communion, but also that they risked Hell. For when one is in so serious a state that they should refrain from Communion, this is not their only problem! The prospect of strict judgement and hell are also very serious and real likelihoods.

Hence, when the Church teaches on the manner of receiving communion worthily, it is good and important to broaden the discussion beyond certain politicians or certain subjects. Otherwise it appears that our agenda is more political than spiritual. Pastors (and Bishops too) thus should look to teach on this matter in broad as well as specific ways.

There are many sins that can and should exclude one from receiving Holy Communion unless and until repentance is manifest and Sacramental confession is received (or, in specific circumstances, a perfect act of contrition with the intent to receive the Confession is made):

  • One may habitually skip mass, and thus be in mortal sin.
  • One may ridicule sacred things or person and thus harm seriously the faith of children or others.
  • One may give grave scandal or harm the reputations of others in serious ways by gossip.
  • One may be gravely lacking charity or unreasonably refusing of mercy.
  • One may be seriously derelict in their duties toward parents or family.
  • One may be seriously insubordinate and cause grave harm to unity.
  • One may be reckless in their behavior and thus seriously endanger the lives or well being of others.
  • One may have procured or assisted in the procuring of abortion.
  • One may be in sinful and wrongful sexual liaisons, have engaged in seductive behaviors that led others to sin, or may be sexually uncontrolled and irresponsible.
  • One may born false witness or told lies that seriously misled, endangered others or caused others to make seriously wrong choices or conclusions.
  • One may have taken from others, or failed to render what others were due in significant ways.
  • One can be seriously derelict in their duties to the poor and needy.
  • And one can be locked into serious greed that unreasonably seeks to posses what belongs to others or is needed by others.

We tend, in our culture and times to emphasize certain things to the exclusion of others. But there are many things from which we should repent and which, when repentance is lacking should require us to step back from the Sacrament of Communion, the Holy Sacrament of love, union and charity.

Jesus says,

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24)

We all do well to, as St. Paul says, “examine ourselves,” and be frequent in confession if we are going to frequent the altar. Again, to quote the Pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger):  The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected.

And this admonition is for us all, not just for some, lest we fall condemned under the word of Amos above or of these similar words from Isaiah:

“The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have had more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals;….Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is 11:11-20ff).

Though it is right that we trust in God’s mercy, the door to that mercy is repentance and humility. God is clearly not pleased with presumption, vain worship or sinful Communion.  A message for us all.

Concerning the obsession for photos at Liturgies – A Consideration of a Liturgical and Pastoral Problem

Consider the scene. The Bishop has taken his place at the entrance to the sanctuary. He is prepared to confirm some twenty children. It is a sacred moment, a Sacrament is to be conferred. The parents are in deep prayer thanking the Holy Spirit who is about to confirm their children for mission….. Oops, they are not!

Actually, they are fumbling with their cell phone cameras. Some are scrambling up the side aisle to “get the shot.” Others are holding the “phone” up in the air to get the blurry, crooked shot. The tussling continues in the side aisle as parents muscle to get in place for “the shot.” If “the shot” is gotten, success! If not, “woe is me.” Never mind that a sacrament has actually been offered and received, the point was “the shot,” the “photo-op.”

Consider another scene. It is First Holy Communion. Again, the children are assembled.  This time the parents have been informed that a single parishioner has been engaged to take shots and could they please refrain from amateur photography. This is to little avail, “Who does that deacon think he is telling me to refrain, denying me the shot!?” The cell phones still stick up in the air. Even worse, the parish photographer sends quick word via the altar server, “Could Father please slow down a bit in giving the children communion? It is difficult to get a good shot at the current (normal) pace.” After the Mass the photographer has two children along side, could Father perhaps “re-stage” the communion moment for these two since, in the quick (normal) pace of giving Communion, their shot was bad, as the autofocus was not able to keep up…”Look how blurry it is Father.”

It would seem the picture is the point.

I have seen it with tourists as well. I live just up the street from the US Capitol and it is fascinating to watch the tourists go by on the buses. Many of them are so busy taking a picture of the Capitol (a picture they could get in a book, or find on the Internet), that I wonder if they ever see the Capitol with their own eyes.

The picture is the point.

Actually I would propose, it is NOT the point. Real life and actual experience are the point. Further, in the Liturgy, the worship and praise of God, the experience of his love, and attentiveness to his Word is the point. Cameras, more often than not, cause us to miss the point. We get the shot but miss the experience. Almost total loss if you ask me.

At weddings in this parish we speak to the congregation at the start and urge them to put away all cameras. We assure the worried crowd that John and Mary have engaged the services of a capable professional photographer who will be able to record the moment quite well. “What John and Mary could use most from you now are your prayers for them and expressed gratitude to God who is the author and perfecter of this moment.” Yes, we assure them, now is the time for prayer, for worship and for joyful awareness of what God is doing.

Most professional photographers are in fact professional and respectful and know how to stay back and not become a part of the ceremony but to discretely record it. It is rare that I have trouble with them. Videographers still have a way to go as a group, but there are many who I would say are indeed professional.

Pastorally it would seem appropriate to accept that photos are important to people to make reasonable accommodations for photos. For major events  such as weddings, confirmations, First Communions and Easter Vigils, it seems right that we should insist that if photos are desired, a professional be hired. This will help keep things discrete, and permit family and others to more prayerfully experience the sacred moments. Infant Baptisms are a little more “homespun” and it would seem that the pastor should speak with family members about limiting the number of amateur photographers, and be clear about where they should stand.

That said, I have no photos of my Baptism, First Communion or Confirmation. I have survived this (terrible) lack of “the shot” quite well. Frankly, in the days I received these sacraments, photos of the individual moment were simply not done in the parishes I attended. Some parishes did have provisions for pictures in those days. The photo at upper right is of Cardinal O’Boyle at St. Cyprian’s in Washington DC in 1957. But as for me, I do have a photo of me taken on my way to Church for First Communion, but there is no photo of me kneeling at the rail. I am alive and well. There are surely photos of my ordination. But I will add, the Basilica and the Archdiocese were very clear as to the parameters. Only two professional photographers were allowed, (My Uncle was one of them them) and the place where they worked was carefully delineated.

Hence, pastoral provisions are likely necessary in these “visual times”  which allow some photos. Yet as St. Paul says regarding the Liturgy: But let all things be done decently, and according to order (1 Cor 14:40).

A final reiteration: Remember the photo is not the moment. The moment is the moment and the experience is the experience. A photo is just a bunch of pixels, lots of 0’s and 1’s, recorded by a mindless machine and printed or displayed by a mindless machine. A picture is no substitute for the actual experience, the actual prayer, the actual worship that can and should take place at every sacred moment and it every sacred liturgy.

And here is some very rare footage of a nuptial mass. It is of my parents in May 1959. What makes it rare is that it is film, not mere pictures and that it is filmed from the sacristy. My parents told me years ago that they presumed it was filmed by a priest who alone in those years could get access to the sacristies and other back areas.

On the Giving and Receiving of Holy Communion: Some norms to recall.

Recently here in the Archdiocese of Washington there was an issue regarding the denial of Holy Communion to a certain individual, which caused no little debate among the faithful. I am NOT going to reopen that case here, and ask all readers to please recall that, no matter what you may think, you do not have all the facts, and I do not wish to rehearse the (partial) specifics of the whole affair.

That said, a number of us priests asked for a review of the norms of the policies of the Church and the Archdiocese in these sorts of situations, and the Archdiocese responded at a convocation of the all the priests, which discussed many matters, this one among it. (At the same convocation we also discussed the specifics of the lawsuit initiated by the Archdiocese and other Catholic groups and diocese against the Administration).

I am grateful that the Cardinal and his senior staff responded in a concise and clear manner. For, it is a fact that these sorts of situations, wherein, Communion must be withheld, are both delicate and complicated. It is always helpful to know the norms, and review them frequently since there are times when a priest must deal quickly with situations that arise, and having command of the norms is immensely helpful.

Frankly, we do not always get every situation right. Being human, our judgment is sometimes flawed. But to the degree that we have reviewed and pondered the collected wisdom of the Church, and have a grasp of the basic policies, we stand the chance of avoiding mistakes either of excess or defect.

All that said, here are some norms and policies that were presented to us from a variety of sources.

From the Sacramental Norms of the Archdiocese (promulgated 1/25/2010; 6.41.1-6.41.6) (I have included a few remarks of my own in red) :

  1. Any baptized person, not prohibited by law, can and must be admitted to Holy Communion (cf Canon # 912).
  2. Full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful receive Holy Communion. Yet care must be taken, lest they conclude that the mere fact of being present during the liturgy gives them a right or obligation to receive Communion. Even when it is not possible to receive Communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. (cf Pope Benedict Sacramentum Caritatis # 55)
  3. A person who is to receive Holy Eucharist, is to abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine (cf Canon 919.1)

From the USCCB Guidelines (also referenced in ADW Liturgical norms and policies):

  1. Those who receive Holy Communion should not be conscious of grave sin.
  2. Should have fasted for one hour.
  3. And, if there is no reasonable opportunity for confession, the person should make and act of perfect contrition, which thereby includes the intention of confessing to the priest as soon as possible. (For it sometimes happens that, in current circumstances where most receive Holy Communion, that to abstain would raise difficult questions and possibly result in a person announcing publicly that they are in mortal sin. To avoid this, the Church does allow this act of perfect contrition, which obviously includes the intent to seek the Sacrament of Confession to be valid).

The recipient of Holy Communion also makes declarations by presenting himself for Holy Communion:

  1. That he or she is a Catholic.
  2. That he or she accepts the teaching of the Catholic Church in toto and is not consciously or intentional dissenting from known doctrines or dogmas, from whatever the Church professes and believes to be revealed by God. (For Communion means cum (with) + unio (union), and thereby is more than a “me and Jesus” thing, it involves a union with the Church his Body and Bride. Dissenters and those in schism who cannot make this declaration of union, thus should not claim communion when there is a significant lack of union either by dissent or schism).
  3. That he or she is not conscious or gave or serious sin.

Therefore a strong responsibility falls on the one coming forward to receive Holy Communion. Since priests and deacons cannot know the state of each person in most circumstances, the fundamental responsibility is on the one who comes forward to receive. For, as St Paul says, Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29). Note that Paul and Scripture place the responsibility primarily on the communicant, rather than an (non-omniscient) clergy.

Therefore, the minister of Holy Communion is to:

  1. Presume the integrity of the persons presenting themselves for Holy Communion.
  2. Trust in this fact is to be presumed unless proven clearly, otherwise.
  3. It may be the case that one, whom the Minister (priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister), sees come forward has in fact been to confession, and/or renounced previous sinful practices. I was once told of a situation wherein a person who had been in an invalid marriage, in fact, had the marriage validated. Yet, on coming forward was told by the priest to stand aside. Though the couple was reconciled to the Church, the minister of Communion presumed their incapacity and dismissed them. This caused embarrassment and anger.  When in doubtful situations, however, the priest ought to give Communion and perhaps seek counsel, and to counsel the person later.

On the prohibition of Holy Communion to Public Sinners.

  1. Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted, after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion (Canon # 915).
  2. Thus, if a person has been publicly excommunicated (rare today!) They are to be denied Holy Communion if they come forward. There are other forms of excommunication (often called Latae Sententiae (or automatic) excommunications) that are more secret and unknown to the general public. For example, if one procures abortion they are automatically excommunicated. But such an excommunication is usually not publicly known and the Minister who may know of this, third hand or simply in a counseling situation, ought not deny Communion only based on that. For confidentiality is to be preserved even if it is outside the Seal of Confession (which can never be violated). In cases such as this, where an excommunication is not publicly declared, the Minster of Communion, ought not publicly deny Communion, but speak privately to the person to ensure that the Latae Sententiae excommunication is, or has been, lifted in the Confessional setting.
  3. But if one is clearly and publicly been excommunicated they should be publicly refused Holy Communion. (Rare today!)
  4. Further, if a person publicly attempts to use Holy Communion for purposes beyond the Spiritual intent, they can be denied. (For example, a troublesome group known as “Act-up” has sometimes disrupted Catholic Masses, coming forward in public ways, often wearing symbolic insignia or “stoles” and demanded Holy Communion. They are rightly refused Holy Communion for they deny its significance by their action, and politicize the reception of Communion, calling it a right rather than a privilege, and a confession of the true faith. Thereby they publicly forfeit the presumption that they approach communion worthily or with proper disposition of faith).

Canon 915:

  1. Prohibits the reception of Holy Communion to those who are excommunicated.
  2. Permits the public denial of Holy Communion to those whose sin is grave, and manifest, and in which they are obstinately persevering in the sinful state.
  3. Therefore note, as others have, three criteria must be met. For a person may be in grave sin, and the priest must  know this outside the confessional. But unless the sin is manifest, i.e. a sin the priest knows, and one which is clearly known by most of the congregants, and unless he is sure they have not repented and received absolution prior to this Holy Communion, he ought not publicly deny the Sacrament. He may wish to confer with the person discretely and confidentially later to give further counsel, but he ought not otherwise deny the Sacrament unless he is sure their sin is grave, manifest and unrepented.

As I hope you can see, the primary burden of discernment in these matters falls in the recipient of Holy Communion. As Scripture says, Let a man examine himself…..

Those looking for showdowns at the altar rail or communion station ought to realize that Church law and policies, as well as prudential judgments, frown on such things. Priests and other ministers of Holy Communion need to remember they are not omniscient, and may authentically be mistaken in their assessment of those who approach the Sacrament.

Hence, doubts are to be resolved in favor of the communicant. Where there are concerns on the part of the minister of Holy Communion (i.e. a priest or deacon), he ought to approach the communicant privately and discretely and either give counsel, or clarify the facts. If an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion has doubts they should consult with the priest or pastor. Confrontations and showdowns at the moment of Communion should be avoided, and should be very rare, if the norms are proclaimed and followed.

There are some who may wish to applaud if Communion is denied to certain people in a public way. But confrontations “at the rail” usually flow from  a failure of catechesis, and/or a failure to follow policy in more remote and discrete settings such as the confessional, the pulpit and the catechetical setting . Denials and showdowns are to be lamented not celebrated. And thought they do rarely happen, the goal is to avoid them altogether.

These norms  along with a wider appreciation of their purpose may help in avoiding errors either by the clergy or by the faithful. Ultimately the norms for the worthy reception of Holy Communion and all the Sacraments , flow from a reverence that God is Holy, that He and his Sacraments are neither to be mocked, nor to be necessarily withheld from the faithful who desperately need them.

Perhaps it is well to end with a passage from St. Paul about Holy Communion:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions (1 Cor 11:27-35)

OK, comments are open. But let me be clear, we are not going to rehash the whole affair of a certain priest here in the Archdiocese who was in the news two months back. Let me clear that comments are not open to bishop-bashing and to pontificating about an event wherein not all the facts are even public. If you choose to mention the case too specifically I reserve my right to edit, or to refuse the comment altogether. This post is about catechesis, especially as we move forward toward the Feast of Corpus Christi. Let’s look ahead, not back.

Not Mindless Magic, but Mindful Mystery: On the Fruitful Reception of the Sacraments

A fundamental principle of the seven Sacraments is that they have a reality that exists apart from the priest’s holiness or worthiness. They work ex opere operato (ie.. they are worked from the very fact of the work). One need not doubt therefore that a sacrament is in fact given just because a bishop, priest or deacon seems less than holy or worthy. Neither can the disposition of the recipient un-work the work. For example, Holy Communion does not cease to be the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ merely because the one who steps forward is unworthy or even an unbeliever. The Sacrament has a reality in itself that transcends the worthiness of the celebrant or recipient.

However, sacraments are not magic in the sense that they work effects in us in a manner independent of our disposition or will. Sacraments, though actually conferred by the fact that they are given, have a varying fruitfulness dependant upon the disposition, worthiness and openness of the recipient. One may receive a sacrament to great effect or lesser effect depending on how well disposed they are to those effects. This is referred to as the fruitfulness of the sacraments.

To illustrate fruitfulness let’s take a non sacramental example. Imagine two men in the Fine Arts Museum and lets us also imagine that they are looking at a Rembrandt painting: Apostle Peter Kneeling of 1631 (See photo at right). Now one man is a trained artist. He knows and understands the use of shadow and light. He can observe and see the techniques of brush strokes. He knows of Rembrandt and his life and times. He also knows the Bible and a good bit about hagiography. He knows about St. Peter, the significance of the keys, of Peter’s penitence and how he finally died. The second man knows none of this and is actually rather annoyed to be in the “boring” museum. All he thinks is, “Who is that guy and why is he sitting on the floor?….Why don’t we get out of here, go to a sports bar and hook a few brews or something more interesting?”

Now, both men are actually standing before a Rembrandt painting. It has a reality in itself apart from what either man thinks. It is, in fact, what it is. But the experience of beholding the painting is a far more fruitful experience for the first man than for the second. The first man gains a lot from the experience, the other gains little and may in fact have an experience that is adverse or repelling.

It is like this with the sacraments. They have a reality in themselves that is objective and real and they actually extend the graces they announce. But how fruitfully a person receives them is quite dependent on the openness and disposition of the recipient. Sacraments are not magic as though they zap us and change us independently of our disposition.

Consider some examples:

  1. Two people come forward to receive Holy Communion. One comes forward with great piety and mindfulness to what and Who she is to receive. She has recently made a good confession and is in a state of grace. She prayerfully, mindfully and devoutly receives the sacred host and returns to her pew to pray. The second person comes forward inattentively. Instead of thinking of what she is about to do she is irritated at the priest for going long in the homily and distractedly considering what she is going to do when she leaves here. She has not been to confession in many years and may in fact be in mortal sin. She receives the Sacred Host with little thought or devotion and heads for the nearest door. Both in fact receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. Objectively the sacrament is conferred. But one receives fruitfully and the other has little or no fruitfulness. In fact, if she is in state of mortal sin, not only did she not fruitfully receive a blessing but she may have brought a condemnation upon herself (cf 1 Cor 11: 29). So the sacrament is not magic and does not zap the second woman into holiness. A sacrament worthily received in a mindful manner to a person well disposed can have great effects, but proper and open disposition including faith-filled and worthy reception are essential. The more open and disposed one is, the more fruitful the reception.
  2. Two people go to confession. One carefully prepares by examining his conscience and has a true contrition (sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment). In examining his conscience he does not merely consider his external behaviors but looks to the internal and deeper drives of sin within him. He seeks to reflect on his motivations, priorities, resentments and the like. He goes to confession once a month. Once in the confessional he makes a good confession and listens carefully to what the priest says and accepts his penance with gratitude to God. The second man makes little preparation only coming up with a few vague sins on his way from the car. He comes yearly to confession to make his Easter duty and after a year can only figure he has said a few bad things and been a little grouchy, and looked at a few dirty pictures. In the confessional he mentions his sins only in a perfunctory way and pays little attention to the exhortation of the priest. Now both men receive absolution but one receives the sacrament for more fruitfully than the other. The first man will likely experience growth in holiness and spiritual progress if he routinely approaches the sacrament in this manner. The other will probably be back next year with the same list or with worse things.
  3. Marriage is a sacrament received once. As such it’s graces are received at once but unfold throughout married life. Hence, two are made one on the day of marriage but the couple’s experience of this may vary and hopefully grow as time goes on. Through daily prayer, weekly communion, personal growth in holiness of the spouses, consistent work at their relationship, the graces of marriage will be experienced more fruitfully as time goes on. But it is also possible to stunt or hinder the fruitfulness of graces of marriage through neglect of prayer, sacraments, interpersonal growth and communication.

Sacraments therefore are not magic acts. They convey a reality, but internal disposition, worthy, mindful reception and faith are all essential factors for the sacraments to be received more and more fruitfully. Perfunctory and mindless reception yields little fruit. Devout, mindful and worthy reception yields increasing fruit. And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold (Mark 4:20).

More can be said on this topic and I invite your comments and questions to fill in the details.

In this video clip Fr. Francis Martin discusses the depth of the word “mystery” which is an essential component of all the Sacraments. In fact many of the Eastern Churches call the sacraments the “Mysteries” for in every sacrament there is dimension far deeper than what is merely seen or sensed. Enjoy this brief and profound explanation.